Journey from waifs to women

Jacqueline McKenzie (Lien), with her husband, Damon.
Jacqueline McKenzie (Lien), with her husband, Damon.

THE black-and-white photos taken in Vietnam 40 years ago are faded now, but the despair etched into the children's faces is still crystal clear. Small faces, lost faces, they were the innocent orphans of the long Vietnam War.

Two infants named Lien and Thi Xuan were among them, fathers unknown, mothers missing. Lien, who was almost three, had been found on a rubbish tip in Bien Hoa weighing barely six kilograms. She had TB, scurvy and was malnourished, but against all the odds, she and Thi Xuan won what you might call the orphan lottery.

They were among five Vietnamese girls flown to Australia for adoption, as part of a private humanitarian effort opposed by the Australian and South Vietnamese governments but accomplished nevertheless by a determined Melbourne woman named Elaine Moir.

The flight of the orphans via Singapore in May 1972 (they had no passports or visas) was a media sensation at the time. Moir, who died three months ago, was dubbed the ''waif smuggler'' by the press, hailed as a heroine by an admiring public but criticised by officialdom.

The Methodist Church said such cross-cultural adoptions were not in the interests of the children, the Red Cross said the cost of the exercise would have been better spent on children in Vietnam.

However, Moir forged ahead, playing a key role in further Vietnamese adoptions that eventually numbered in the hundreds.

The arrival of those first five orphans transfixed the nation. They had all been allocated to Australian families, who were at Sydney airport to welcome them. Lien was adopted by 48-year-old Cecilia Verlinden, a single Dutch-born nurse living in Ballarat who had been unable to have her own children.

Lien was renamed Helen after Helen Banff, the Australian nurse who had found her. (Later, she opted to use the name Jacqueline.) Thi Xuan was adopted by divorcee Judith Slater, 38, who lived in the Blue Mountains in NSW. Slater renamed the child, who was two years and eight months old, Michelle T'suan.

Another of the orphan girls, Nguyen, who was 3½, was taken in by Colin and Helen Stewart in Melbourne.

A fourth orphan, 15-month-old Mai Suyin, joined the family of Tom and Irene Williams, also in Melbourne. And Gwenda and Ken Ormston, of Shepparton, who already had three adopted sons, took the fifth child whom they named Brooke Louise.

The new arrivals were feted in the media, photographed for glossy magazines, but eventually they went the way of all news stories - the spotlight faded and the media caravan moved on.

It was only when Elaine Moir died in August that memories of the orphans stirred again and the question arose: how did the lives of these little ones, plucked from their homeland so many years ago, work out?

For Lien, now named Jacqueline McKenzie, that story is bittersweet. For Thi Xuan, now using the name Tyswan Slater, the journey has been less traumatic. Now in their 40s and with children of their own, they have kept in touch through four decades, regarding each other as ''sisters''. They know little of what happened to the other three.

McKenzie now lives in Geelong with her second husband, Damon McKenzie. They married last December after 11 years together and Jacqueline says their marriage is ''the best''. But even now, at 43, she can get tearful about her earlier life.

''I had a very hard childhood,'' she says. ''I went to school in Sebastapol and I was teased all the time. It was awful. I was the only dark-haired Asian, everyone else was white and Western. It wasn't until the mid-'80s when they started having overseas exchange students to the school that I felt more comfortable.

''But all that damaged my confidence. I felt I wasn't accepted and people who are damaged like that tend to go into abusive relationships. I married a domineering man, but of course you don't see it at first because you are already feeling low enough about yourself.''

Her first husband started building a house for them at Beaufort, between Ararat and Ballarat, but never finished the project. The building had no power, no reticulated water, no heating apart from the open fireplace.

''I lived like a pioneer. I still can't believe it. I chopped firewood when I was pregnant.''

Today, she still struggles to understand why she became involved with him - she says he was an alcoholic, and gave her little support. ''It took a long time but I finally realised that you can't change anybody, people have to make the change for themselves.''

Eventually McKenzie left her husband, went back to school, and built a successful business as a remedial therapist.

Cecilia Verlinden, the woman who adopted Jacqueline, died five years ago. ''I loved her dearly. My mother was a very strong-willed woman who had to re-do all her nursing qualifications at the same time as learning English.''

Verlinden adopted two more orphans - a girl, Patricia, and a boy from Thailand. Patricia lives in a facility for the handicapped but Jacqueline has not seen her brother since their mother died.

''It's a shame,'' she says. ''He was older than me when adopted and had a lot of ingrained stuff, feelings of rejection that he has never really gotten over.''

McKenzie says she went through a ''lot of soul-searching and counselling'' after her marriage ended. She changed her name, moving to Geelong with her three children to start afresh.

She met Damon, a salesman, on a social outing. Remarkably he had heard the story of the war waifs and took a bit of convincing that Jacqueline was one of them.

Michelle T'suan Slater, now an artist, has Anglicised her name to Tyswan and lives in the Blue Mountains in NSW, where she was raised by her adoptive mother Judith Slater. Like Jacqueline McKenzie, she says her Asian appearance made her a target at her school at Blaxland, but is pragmatic about it.

''It was a white middle-class, mostly Christian area,'' she says. ''There were about five Asian kids at the high school of 1200 - and a handful of Italians and Greeks and Lebanese. Very white. So if you were slightly ethnic you were white by default.

''When kids pick on you they pick on the most obvious thing, so it was because I was Asian. But if I had had glasses or braces or I'd been fat that's what they would have picked on so it wasn't really a racial thing.''

Slater had been educated in Sydney and had gone on to a well-paid job in the computer industry, had a daughter, Kahlila, then at age 30 decided to reinvent herself.

''I had a good career, owned a house, was doing all the things you are supposed to but I never really wanted that.''

Her mother Judith now lives on the NSW central coast. ''I get on better with my mum than some people who aren't adopted. Being brought up by a single parent in the 1970s wasn't easy, we didn't have a lot of money but I had everything I needed - roof over my head, education, clothes to wear.''

Neither Tyswan Slater nor Jacqueline McKenzie has any real memory of their native land but both confess to an impelling curiosity. McKenzie, whose budget has not been sufficient to enable her to return to Vietnam, says she wants to visit the areas she had been told about.

''It will be hard, it will be emotional, but all my life I have felt very close to Vietnamese culture. I feel drawn to it. And I am also drawn towards America because they say I am part Vietnamese, part American.''

Slater travelled to Vietnam in 1995 when she was 25. ''But Ho Chi Minh City had changed a great deal by then, and the districts and streets were named differently. I knew the name of my mother - it was on my birth certificate - but I didn't really make much effort [to find her].

''It's not really a defining thing in my life. For me, my mum and family are the ones who brought me up in Australia, but if someone came up to me tomorrow and said they knew where my Vietnamese family was I would say 'fantastic, let's go'.''

However, tracing family members from that era is a difficult task. Many documents and records were destroyed after the communist takeover and, if and when there is a birth certificate, it often excludes the father's name.

Slater explains this was to make the adoption process easier, to circumvent the need to receive the father's permission. ''A lot of parents back then would give their children away in the hope that they would be adopted and have a better life. There have been cases where people have gone to Vietnam and adopted a child then realised the child had a living mother.''

Two of the major players in the story of the orphans- Elaine Moir and an army chaplain, Father Joe Turner, who selected Slater from a French-run orphanage - have died. Helen Banff, the army nurse who found the infant Jacqueline/Lien, lives in a Queensland aged-care centre. She suffers from mild dementia, but was able to speak briefly by phone to Fairfax Media, saying she still recalled the many orphans in Vietnam at that time. ''There was a lot of sadness, lots of crying.'' she said. For Jacqueline McKenzie and Tyswan Slater, life in their 40s seems to have brought contentment but their orphan years can still hover like a ghost.

Several years ago McKenzie and her husband visited the Vietnam Veterans Museum on Phillip Island and were ''stopped in their tracks'' when they came across a photo of an infant from the war years.

''She looked identical to me at that age,'' says McKenzie. ''I managed to track down the military officer who was pictured with her and I spoke to him. But it wasn't me after all.''

Lawrence Money is a senior writer.

This story Journey from waifs to women first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.